Often the secret behind a highly successful restaurant is uncovered reading between the lines. Menu composition, location analysis and food controls often pale in importance to such things as passion and tenacity.
Such is one of the invaluable lessons I’ve learned from my friendship with Janos Wilder, a peach of a human being and one of the Southwest’s most celebrated chefs and restaurateurs. A self-trained culinary wizard, Wilder personifies the belief that a burning creative desire and dogged determination can achieve anything.
In 1983, the then 29-year-old Wilder opened Janos Restaurant in the historic Presidio area of downtown Tucson, having convinced a handful of backers to finance the venture. The consortium’s shaky investment paid off handsomely for Wilder went on to create a beautiful, world-class restaurant. Gourmands, like the rest of us amateur eaters, quickly became enthralled with Janos and its trendsetting menu, an innovative cuisine marrying the sensibility and subtlety of French cooking with the fresh, vibrant ingredients of the Southwest.
In 1998, Wilder relocated his restaurant to its present location in a freestanding building on the grounds of the Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa. Housed under the same roof is J BAR, a casual, less expensive alternative to the fine dining Janos. The 60-seat J BAR is has a light and airy feel with a large patio and panoramic views of the Tucson Valley. The menu is a brilliant ensemble of flavors of Mexico, Latin American and the Caribbean.
At 53, Janos is the first to admit that his ascent into the upper echelons of the restaurant industry was largely unscripted. Despite his unconventional approach, my vertically challenged friend is a walking graduate program on how to succeed in the restaurant business. What he dismisses as Old School common sense, I see as fodder for a master’s dissertation. Were I ever to write such a thing, it would be entitled, “Deconstructing the Janos Touch,” and minimally include the following.
• VENI, VEDI, VECI — Twenty-five years ago Janos foresaw the tremendous potential of Southwest and Caribbean cooking and made the flavor-laded cuisines the core of his concept. He applied traditional French methodology and relied on fresh indigenous ingredients. Even during downturns in his business that greatly tested his determination, Wilder stayed the course. He resisted raising prices during those lean years, and continued striving to perfect his craft and take his cuisine new heights. By the time food trends in the country caught up with Wilder, the name Janos was already a marketable franchise.
• EQUAL BILLING — Janos is steadfast that a motivated, hospitable and knowledgeable staff is the ultimate “X” factor in the success equation. He has developed what I think is an enlightened approach toward his employees that has proven remarkably effective. Although he retains the right to cast a veto, Janos allows his staff to set their own schedules, which since its inception has improved the work environment and dissipated a large source of grievances. The staff also participates in the hiring of new employees, both during interviews and ultimately deciding who is hired. Upward mobility within the company is strongly encouraged, which helps keep staff morale and retention extraordinarily high.
• MARKETING ACUMEN — Tucson is a seasonal town. When the heat sets in, hotels, resorts and restaurants ramp down conceding a drop in business. Wilder has always taken the opposite approach. He targets his marketing and promotion efforts for the summer months and lures large numbers of his clientele with innovative fixed menus and engaging food and beverage pairings such that his restaurant’s numbers don’t change during the slow months. Janos succeeds when most others merely endure.
• JOINT VENTURE — Somewhat atypical for a renowned chef, Wilder places emphasis on the creative output of his bar. He fully appreciates the synergy between food and beverage, and that excellence in both areas is requisite for a total guest experience. At J BAR, his bartenders tempt guests with Latin- and Caribbean-influenced drinks, refreshingly delicious cocktails such as the Watermelon Margarita and Guadalajara Cooler, a refreshing blend of Membrillo quince liqueur and a bevy of freshly squeezed juices. As a result, the lounge at J BAR is as much of a draw as the snazzy food.
• JANOS FACTOR — It’s often small things that matter most in a restaurant. Wilder generously shares with his protégés what he’s learned over the years and takes pride in the future successes achieved by those he worked. He talks with his staff before every shift, makes them dinner every night, and offers generous benefit packages based on their tenure.
Perhaps most importantly, Wilder has also successfully avoided the emotional pitfalls of the restaurant business. He maintains a regular work schedule, leaves before close and never works Sundays. Janos exudes vitality and his passion for the business is palpable. He walks the floor and genuinely cares that his guests are completely satisfied and the staff is happy. And then when he’s convinced that everything is spot on, he says goodnight and leaves. That’s how you stay around long enough to enjoy what you’ve built.
Not surprisingly, Janos has a slightly different take on things. “You know, you never really succeed, or reach your fullest potential. Its always just beyond reach, which perhaps is why I love to come to work everyday.”